Category Archives: Space books

“The Orbital Perspective” – astronaut Ron Garan’s new book

Astronaut Ron Garan shared many wonderful images of earth with the public via social media during his stay aboard the International Space Station. He has now written a book about his time in space and about the special view of earth available from there: The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles.

TheOrbitalPerspective-Cover

John Blake Publishing is delighted to announce the publication of The Orbital Perspective: An Astronaut’s View by Colonel Ron Garan. This thrilling narrative explores Garan’s extraordinary life, from fighter pilot turned astronaut and reveals how his life transformed in a way that he could never have foreseen.

Garan’s perspective of life on Earth changed entirely when he became one of only a handful of humans to have seen the stunningly rare and fragile beauty of earth from space. His views of earth as a tiny marble 240 miles below him, led him to see a way forward without divisions of race, nations or religion.

As founder of the ‘Fragile Oasis’ project, Garan aimed to connect the orbital perspective and scientific expertise of astronauts, with those on earth in an attempt to make a difference.

Along the lines of Chris Hadfield’s An Astronauts to Life, this utterly unique memoir combines 177 days spent in space, with a powerful message of the need for optimism, trust and global collaboration in order to sustain our way of life. It asks humanity to come together so as to protect the most valuable space station of all – the Earth.

——

‘Unique… reminds us of our common humanity and that the pressing challenges we face,
we must face and resolve together’

Kofi Annan, Nobel Peace Laureate

The Orbital Perspective by Ron Garan is published by
John Blake Publishing
in hardback on 5th November 2015. 

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“Farside” – a new book by Patrick Chiles

Patrick Chiles, author of  Perigee (see my review here), has just released a new book titled, Farside.

A missing spacecraft –
A missing spacecraft –
A cryptic message –
And a fearsome secret hidden in plain sight.

Five years after being stranded in Earth orbit, Ryan Hunter must travel even farther to find the man who saved his life.
Hunter and former astronaut Penny Stratton are launched headfirst into a threat beyond anything they ever imagined. Carrying an unconventional rescue team into a confrontation with space-age hijackers, they already know the stakes are incredibly high.

What they can’t know is that the fate of millions rests on their shoulders. And someone wants to keep it that way.

Because something big is coming…

Patrick tells me

Farside is still set in a world where commercial spaceflight has become mostly routine, but it’s a much bigger story [than the one in Perigee].

I’ve been told it feels like a mashup of Apollo 13 and Hunt for Red October.

Farside is now available in Kindle format.

Review: “Fury of the Fifth Angel” by Pat and Chris Hoffman

There have been a number of books and movies about the end of the earth when a not-so heavenly object descends with extreme prejudice upon our helpless little planet. In Fury of the Fifth AngelPat and Chris Hoffman depict a scenario short of total oblivion by a space salvo but devastating none the less. Coming from a background in the power industry, they give a realistic portrayal of how civilization quickly descends into chaos as our utilities and other services switch off during a catastrophic cosmic pelting.

This book, Part I in a series, introduces a large number of characters in a diversity of places and backgrounds who participate in several parallel subplots. They illustrate the many ways such an event would impact, so to speak, a complex modern society, which can revert surprisingly quickly to a raw primitive condition. Presumably Part II will follow these characters as they struggle to survive in the chaos following a cataclysm and to rebuild their society.

With so many characters, it’s not too surprising that most are one dimensional and only a few stretch into 2-D, while none have any great depth. But it is the disaster – before, during and afterwards – that is being depicted and the characters are drawn well enough to profile it in vivid 3-D.

There is a lengthy build up to the action from above and a focus in more than one of the subplots on efforts of the powers-that-be to keep quiet the approaching threat. In a day when most any celestial object that can be seen by one observer is quickly found by multiple observers all of whom race to be the first to report the discovery on line, the suggestion that such a finding could be suppressed is unrealistic. Furthermore, it is clearly nearly impossible to keep secrets these days in government and in large organizations, especially dramatic earth-shaking kinds of secrets.

That said, Fury of the Fifth Angel is a fun and thought-provoking read that provides a fine contribution to the celestial catastrophe genre.

An interview with Andy Weir, author of ‘The Martian’

A conversation with Andy Weir, author of The Martian: A Novel (which will soon be “A Movie” as well), about the book and about humans going to Mars : How Science Fiction Will Help Us Go to Mars: Andy Weir explains the science behind “The Martian.” – Mother Jones

https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/189715652

 

Review: “Five Billion Years of Solitude” by Lee Billings

Zooming in on the universe has not been easy or quick. Humans watched the night sky for tens of thousands of years so that by the time early civilizations arose in areas like Mesopotamia, China, and Pre-Colombian America, amazingly detailed knowledge had been gained of the movements of the planets and other heavenly objects visible to the naked eye.

It was not until 1610 that a newfangled gadget called the telescope allowed Galileo to go beyond the limits of the eye and make his famous observations of four moons orbiting Jupiter.

Over the next three centuries, ever larger and more sophisticated telescopes focused in on new planets (Uranus in 1781, Neptune in 1841, Pluto in 1930), asteroids, and moons in our solar system.

Many discoveries were also made of the universe beyond our solar system but it still was not until 1923 that telescopic instruments advanced to a sufficiently sensitive level to allow Edwin Hubble to discover that many of those stellar lights were not stars but galaxies, i.e. conglomerations of billions of stars  just like our own Milky Way.

And it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that a star was resolved by a telescope as a disc rather than a point blur of light. The star was the red super-giant Betelgeuse, whose diameter is about as big as the orbit of Jupiter. Only a handful of similar giants have been subsequently resolved .

So making the next step and zooming in on planets around other stars is clearly a terrifically difficult task. I think it is fair to say that most people, including most astronomers, assumed up until the 1980s that such discoveries would require gigantic telescopes not available until far into the future; at least for spotting planets significantly smaller than Jupiter.

In Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars, Lee Billings tells the story of how astronomers successfully developed methods to detect planets around other stars without seeing them directly. The trick is to detect the effects of an exoplanet on its host star.

The first method to find an exoplanet successfully involves measuring shifts in the frequency of a star’s light as a planet orbits the star. The orbiting planet causes the star to wobble and this wobble results in an increase in the frequency of light when the star moves towards us and a decrease when the star moves away from us. This is a very tiny effect but by monitoring hundreds of spectral lines for the telltale signs of Doppler shifts, the combined statistics of the shifts in all those lines creates a significant signal in the data as more and more orbits of the planet are observed. Groups in Canada, Switzerland and the US found the first exoplanets using this method in the early 1990s.

(In the book, Billings touches on the professional rivalries and squabbles that have arisen in the highly competitive exoplanet-finding field. Here is an article by him about one such battle: The Ugly Battle Over Who Really Discovered the First Earth-Like Planet – WIRED.)

This Doppler shift method (officially referred to as the radial-velocity method)  is biased towards big exoplanets orbiting close to their stars. While our sun has little Mercury as its closest inner planet, it turns out that there are many stars out there with massive exoplanets orbiting much closer to their stars than Mercury is to the Sun. Over time this method has gotten increasingly refined and smaller planets, farther out from their star have been observed.

Another method is to look for the slight dimming of a star when one of its planets passes between us and the star. This transit method requires that the plane of the planet’s orbit is oriented edge on from out point of view. This would seem to be very rare but there are so many stars out there that it happens often enough to give us plenty of cases to observe.

The Kepler space observatory has been spectacularly successful using the transit method. The Kepler team has accumulated a list of about 1000 confirmed exoplanets and over 4000 candidates are still under study. Most of the Kepler exoplanets are also large and too close to the stars to allow for life as we know it. However, a small subset of rocky planets similar in scale to the earth have been detected in “habitable zones” in which their orbits receive sufficient energy from their suns to allow for liquid water if the planets have dense enough atmospheres. That a handful of such candidate rocky exo-earth candidates have been detected is an enormous accomplishment.

The book, however, is not a technical guide to exoplanet detection. As the full name of the book implies, Billings puts the exoplanet discoveries in the broader context of the search for life beyond earth and for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). He focuses particularly on Frank Drake, the leading pioneer in SETI, who published his famous Drake Equation in the 1960s for estimating the number of advanced civilizations in the galaxy. Or guesstimating is more accurate. Most of the parameters in the equation, such as the probability that a star has planets and the fraction of such planets that could support life, were poorly known or not known at all.  The exoplanet discoveries finally provide hard data to determine some of these parameters.

Billings also reviews the formation of the solar system and the geologic and biologic history of the earth.  Earth’s development provides provide clues as to what to look for when seeking exoplanets with life.

Zooming in on earth-like planets and seeing them directly remains a key goal for exoplanet searchers. The most straight-forward way to do this is to build observatories in space and use special techniques to mask out the tremendous glare of the star so that the meager reflected light from the exoplanet can be examined. Most of the designs for such observatories will take considerable resources and Billings laments the lack of funding for such projects. He fears that just as we are finally gaining the capability to see and study distant earths, the implementation of that capability is receding into the future as NASA’s budget remains flat or falls.

(Recently Billings wrote about designs for relatively low cost space observatories specialized to see earth-sized planets around nearby stars if such planets exist : Planet Hunters Bet Big on a Small Telescope to See Alien Earths – Scientific American.)

It has been nearly five billion years since the formation of our solar system and our earth. Billings message is that we have now proven that earth is not the only rocky planet in the Milky Way. The next step is to study these exo-earths and determine if humans remain in solitude or have companions in our galaxy as well.